Mexican-American War: General Winfield Scott

Winfield Scott
General Winfield Scott. Public Domain

Winfield Scott was born on June 13, 1786, near Petersburg, VA. The son of American Revolution veteran William Scott and Ann Mason, he was raised at the family's plantation, Laurel Branch. Educated by a mixture of local schools and tutors, Scott lost his father in 1791 when he was six and his mother eleven years later. Leaving home in 1805, he commenced classes at the College of William & Mary with the goal of becoming a lawyer.

Unhappy Lawyer

Departing school, Scott elected to read law with prominent attorney David Robinson. Completing his legal studies, he was admitted to the bar in 1806, but soon tired of his chosen profession. The following year, Scott gained his first military experience when he served as a corporal of cavalry with a Virginia militia unit in the wake of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. Patrolling near Norfolk, his men captured eight British sailors who had landed with the goal of purchasing supplies for their ship. Later that year, Scott attempted to open a law office in South Carolina but was prevented from doing so by the state's residency requirements. 

Returning to Virginia, Scott resumed practicing law in Petersburg but also began investigating pursuing a military career. This came to fruition in May 1808 when he received a commission as a captain in the U.S. Army. Assigned to the Light Artillery, Scott was posted to New Orleans where he served under the corrupt Brigadier General James Wilkinson. In 1810, Scott was court-martialed for indiscreet remarks he made about Wilkinson and suspended for a year. During this time, he also fought a duel with a friend of Wilkinson, Dr. William Upshaw, and received a slight wound in the head. Resuming his law practice during his suspension, Scott's partner Benjamin Watkins Leigh convinced him to remain in the service.

War of 1812

Called back to active duty in 1811, Scott traveled south as an aide to Brigadier General Wade Hampton and served in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. He remained with Hampton until 1812 and that June learned that war had been declared with Britain. As part of the wartime expansion of the army, Scott was promoted directly to lieutenant colonel and assigned to the 2nd Artillery at Philadelphia. Learning that Major General Stephen van Rensselaer was intending to invade Canada, Scott petitioned his commanding officer to take part of the regiment north to join in the effort. This request was granted and Scott's small unit reached the front on October 4, 1812

Having joined Rensselaer's command, Scott took part in the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13. Captured at the battle's conclusion, Scott was placed on a cartel-ship for Boston. During the voyage, he defended several Irish American prisoners of war when the British attempted to single them out as traitors. Exchanged in January 1813, Scott was promoted to colonel that May and played a key role in the capture of Fort George. Remaining at the front, he was brevetted to brigadier general in March 1814.

Making a Name

In the wake of numerous embarrassing performances, Secretary of War John Armstrong made several command changes for the 1814 campaign. Serving under Major General Jacob Brown, Scott relentlessly trained his First Brigade using the 1791 Drill Manual from the French Revolutionary Army and improving camp conditions. Leading his brigade into the field, he decisively won the Battle of Chippawa on July 5 and showed that well-trained American troops could defeat British regulars. Scott continued with Brown's campaign until sustaining a severe wound in the shoulder at the Battle of Lundy's Lane on July 25. Having earned the nickname "Old Fuss and Feathers" for his insistence on military appearance, Scott did not see further action.

Ascent to Command

Recovering from his wound, Scott emerged from the war as one of the U.S. Army's most capable officers. Retained as a permanent brigadier general (with brevet to major general), Scott secured a three-year leave of absence and traveled to Europe. During his time abroad, Scott met with many influential people including the Marquis de Lafayette. Returning home in 1816, he married Maria Mayo in Richmond, VA, the following year. After moving through several peacetime commands, Scott returned to prominence in mid-1831 when President Andrew Jackson dispatched him west to aid in the Black Hawk War.

Departing Buffalo, Scott led a relief column which was nearly incapacitated by cholera by the time it reached Chicago. Arriving too late to assist in the fighting, Scott played a key role in negotiating the peace. Returning to his home in New York, he was soon sent to Charleston to oversee U.S. forces during the Nullification Crisis. Maintaining order, Scott helped to diffuse the tensions in the city and used his men to aid in extinguishing a major fire. Three years later, he was one of several general officers who oversaw operations during the Second Seminole War in Florida.

In 1838, Scott was ordered to oversee the removal of the Cherokee nation from lands in the Southeast to present-day Oklahoma. While troubled about the justice of the removal, he conducted the operation efficiently and compassionately until being ordered north to aid in resolving border disputes with Canada. This saw Scott ease tensions between Maine and New Brunswick during the undeclared Aroostook War. In 1841, with the death of Major General Alexander Macomb, Scott was promoted to major general and made general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. In this position, Scott oversaw the operations of the army as it defended the frontiers of a growing nation.

Mexican-American War

With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, American forces under Major General Zachary Taylor won several battles in northeastern Mexico. Rather than reinforce Taylor, President James K. Polk ordered Scott to take an army south by sea, capture Vera Cruz, and march on Mexico City. Working with Commodores David Connor and Matthew C. Perry, Scott conducted the U.S. Army's first major amphibious landing at Collado Beach in March 1847. Marching on Vera Cruz with 12,000 men, Scott took the city following a twenty-day siege after forcing Brigadier General Juan Morales to surrender.

Turning his attention inland, Scott departed Vera Cruz with 8,500 men. Encountering the larger army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo, Scott won a stunning victory after one of his young engineers, Captain Robert E. Lee, discovered a trail that allowed his troops to flank the Mexican position. Pressing on, his army won victories at Contreras and Churubusco on August 20, before capturing the mills at Molino del Rey on September 8. Having reached the edge of Mexico City, Scott assaulted its defenses on September 12 when troops attacked Chapultepec Castle.

Securing the castle, American forces forced their way into the city, overwhelming the Mexican defenders. In one of the most stunning campaigns in American history, Scott had landed on a hostile shore, won six battles against a larger army, and captured the enemy's capital. Upon learning of Scott's feat, the Duke of Wellington referred to the American as "the greatest living general." Occupying the city, Scott ruled in an evenhanded manner and was much esteemed by the defeated Mexicans.

Later Years and the Civil War

Returning home, Scott remained general-in-chief. In 1852, he was nominated for the presidency on the Whig ticket. Running against Franklin Pierce, Scott's anti-slavery beliefs hurt his support in the South while the party's pro-slavery plank damaged support in the North. As a result, Scott was badly defeated, winning only four states. Returning to his military role, he was given a special brevet to lieutenant general by Congress, becoming the first since George Washington to hold the rank.

With the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the beginning of the Civil War, Scott was tasked with assembling an army to defeat the new Confederacy. He initially offered command of this force to Lee. His former comrade declined on April 18 when it became clear that Virginia was going to leave the Union. Though a Virginian himself, Scott never wavered in his loyalties.

With Lee's refusal, Scott gave command of the Union Army to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell who was defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21. While many believed the war would be brief, it had been clear to Scott that it would be a protracted affair. As a result, he devised a long-term plan calling for a blockade of the Confederate coast coupled with the capture of the Mississippi River and key cities such as Atlanta. Dubbed the "Anaconda Plan," it was widely derided by the Northern press.

Old, overweight, and suffering from rheumatism, Scott was pressured to resign. Departing the U.S. Army on November 1, the command was transferred to Major General George B. McClellan. Retiring Scott died at West Point on May 29, 1866. Despite the criticism it received, his Anaconda Plan ultimately proved to be the roadmap to victory for the Union. A veteran of fifty-three years, Scott was one of the greatest commanders in American history.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Mexican-American War: General Winfield Scott." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). Mexican-American War: General Winfield Scott. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Mexican-American War: General Winfield Scott." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).